For just over a year now, I've spoken to community professionals who bristle at the same problem.
The way we make decisions for our community is wrong.
We make decisions that will increase activity in a community.
We're measured by our success in increasing activity (or member counts).
If we succeed, we have a very active platform. But a very active platform isn't a community. You don't get the benefits that a community provides.
In fact, many of the actions we take to increase activity destroy the sense of community.
Community professionals build communities
We are community professionals. Our goal is to create communities. We need to stop making decisions that will increase activity and starting make decisions that will increase the sense of community. Sometimes we get lucky. The two are closely correlated.
Communities aren't highly active platforms. The're not technology, they're not cost savings, they're not even people.
They're the psychological feeling that people believe they are part of a community. We often need to do things that seem strange to develop that sense of community. We might reduce the focus of the community, create strong boundaries to joining, celebrate a minor member milestone, participate in seemingly silly social events.
But, every single one of these actions, is carefully considered to create a stronger sense of community.
Too often we push too hard on activity and forget what we're trying to do is get people to feel a sense of community.
Creating this sense of community helps us achieve goals. Those goals include knowledge exchange, social capital, customer loyalty, better collaboration, and cost reductions.
Every single decision and action you take in your community should be designed to increase the sense of community that members feel with one another.
This will usually mean it answers positively to one of the following questions:
1) Will this decision make boundaries between insiders/outsiders more visible?
2) Will this decision make people feel safer voicing their emotions on a topic?
3) Will this decision increase the sense of belonging and identification with the group?
4) Will this decision encourage people to invest more (time, energy, and emotions) within the community?
5) Will this decision help spread a common symbol system?
1) Will this decision give members more influence within the group (i.e. to make things happen?)
2) Will this decision help the group achieve goals external to the group? (group efficacy)
Integration and fulfillment of needs
1) Will this decision allow members to achieve a higher status within their community?
2) Will this decision give members a better sense of belonging (i.e. not feeling alone), explore a topic with others like them, support one another through unique circumstances, or allow them to achieve things they can't alone?
Shared emotional connection
1) Will this decision increase the frequency of contact and familiarity between members?
2) Will this decision improve the quality of contact (i.e. move the contact up the hiearchy of communication)
3) Will this decision give close to previous shared activities between members?
4) Will this decision help establish or reinforce agreed group norms? (i.e. not your norms enforced upon a group)
There are two follow-up questions to every positive answer. "How will it achieve this?" and "is there any better way of achieving this?" (better = cheaper, faster, more reliable, more effective.)
Using this framework
The difference in using this framework is you often forgo increased activity in favour of developing a stronger sense of community.
A gamification system might increase activity, but no-one has shown it linked to creating a stronger sense of community (it might even do the opposite).
Paying a six-figure sum for an expensive, good-looking, platform might increase activity. However, imagine you used that money to directly help your members (or the community) achieve it's goal (it's reason for existing). That would create an incredible sense of shared success that no platform change would ever match.
We need to embed the notion of sense of community deep within our decision making process. Will the actions we take in our community today lead to a stronger sense of community?
More importantly, we need to measure our success by improving the sense of community (using a quarterly/bi-annual survey – SCI2) and not via the activity metrics. Activity is good. Lots of activity might be really good. But it might also be a complete waste of time if it doesn't also entail a stronger sense of community.
It's an urgent problem
Organisations are wasting thousands, often millions, on tactics designed to increase activity in a community. They're spending months panicking about how to increase activity and ignoring the fundamental thing that reliably does increase activity (a stronger sense of community).
They don't see the ROI of their efforts and think it's because they don't have enough activity. This is almost never the case. The reason a positive ROI isn't achieve is because you've got a lot of activity but a more limited sense of community.
This then creates the belief that communities themselves don't work. That, maybe, communities don't generate a positive ROI. This couldn't be further from the truth. The truth is communities do generate an incredible ROI, they just haven't developed one yet.
If we could do one thing better right now, it's to align all our efforts to creating a stronger sense of community in every group to which we're a member and stop endlessly trying to boost activity.